Five miles meandering with a mazy motion,
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reach ‘d the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean.

The above lines by Samuel Taylor Coleridge must be one of the most famous literary references to caves; so much so that Mike Boon’s book of 1960's caving anecdotes ‘Down to a Sunless Sea’ took its title from another line by Coleridge. It is perhaps a little Ironic therefore that a sport with such a ‘clean’ reputation as caving has as far as performance enhancing drugs are concerned should be best known in literature as the product of a mind stimulated by hallucinogens rather than as a record of personal experience.

Even amongst the narcotics permitted by society today’s caver is unlikely to be familiar with a scene similar to that in the pre-war back room of the Royal Oak described by Jim Eyre In ‘the Cave Explorers’. The atmosphere in the public bar is said to have been "thick with smoke" but "mountain-fresh in comparison" with the back bar. Amongst the current generation of cavers tobacco smoke seems to be marginally less acceptable than baked bean and brussels sprout induced flatulence. However, even today’s caver is likely to appreciate Bruce Bedford’s apologia for the consumption of alcohol in his book ‘Challenge Underground’ we need it after caving to relieve stress and overcome dehydration.

I doubt whether the dearth of performance enhancing drugs in the caving world is the result of any moral conviction amongst the sport’s practitioners; the ‘Book of Cavers’ Morals’ must be one of the world’s shortest. Other more plausible explanations may be:-

  1. Without the element of inter-personal competition which appears to be at the core of so many other sports, perhaps cavers just don’t care about performance’. If you doubt this explanation ask yourself how many cavers you know who seriously train for their chosen sport. If you can’t be bothered to get yourself as fit as you possibly can first, why bother with the slight extra edge that drugs might ( or might not ) give you?
  2. Caving demands a peculiar mixture of compromises as far as physique is concerned: Strength is undoubtedly useful but excessive muscularity can produce problems in tight squeezes; height can be an advantage on climbs but long leg—bones can make constricted S-bends difficult. Furthermore, at the age which most cavers take up their sport it is doubtful if drugs can do much for their general physical characteristics. And, once again, perhaps they don’t care that much. How many cavers do you know who have seriously used diet to enhance their caving potential? If cavers are not interested in controlling their body bulk etc. by the intelligent use of food, the product of the farm, it seems unlikely that they should be interested in using the product of the pharmacy.
  3. The output required of cavers in terms of energy, stamina, endurance, resistance to cold and pain, strength, alertness, etc, etc is different in nature or degree from many other sports. It Is at least possible therefore that the ‘normal’ sports drugs would not actually benefit cavers very much. However, an article in the Sunday Times earlier this year reported that American military doctors were pondering the production of pills to make soldiers braver, stronger and brighter. Such pills could be useful to cavers. After all the most popular of French caving authors, Jorbert Casteret, draws analogies, in more than one of his books between his caving experiences and his personal recollections of the trenches of the first world war. Unfortunately it seems that not all of the American researchers are convinced of the efficacy of the proposed pills; one suggested that "coffee may be as effective".

So perhaps it is no wonder that cavers are not widely into performance enhancing drugs if it is indeed the case that Maxwell House has as much effect as Acid House.

Martin Hatton